ROME — Pope Francis on Wednesday vowed to “eradicate” the evil of sexual abuse from the Catholic Church, one day after an investigation into the case of ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick detailed failures that continued into his pontificate.
The Vatican’s 449-page report focused mainly on the years critical to McCarrick’s rise, when Pope John Paul II named him archbishop of Washington despite being warned of his sexual misconduct.
But the report also revealed how lieutenants close to Francis showed little interest in following clues about McCarrick’s misconduct. When briefing the pope, they glossed over the accusations, describing them as something “gossiped about” or resolved.
In its transparency, the report is a groundbreaking moment in Francis’s papacy, documenting impunity and cover-up with the kind of detail advocates and abuse victims have long demanded. But the report also muddles the picture for Catholics of how effectively Francis and his advisers can respond to the broader scourge.
In speaking about the report for the first time, at a general audience Wednesday, Francis was brief. He expressed his “closeness to the victims of all abuse” but did not elaborate on plans to fight abuse within the church. He notably quoted John Paul II, after mentioning it was Poland’s independence day.
The report’s findings have reinforced ideological divisions within the church. Some anti-Francis conservatives complain the document minimizes his culpability. Those generally supportive of Francis say the pontiff deserves credit for authorizing the investigation two years ago, and that the report was correct to train its spotlight on the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, when McCarrick was rising through the church ranks.
By the time Francis became pope, in 2013, McCarrick had retired as archbishop of Washington under secret pressure but retained a high profile as a self-appointed church diplomat. Francis is portrayed in the report as moving against McCarrick — and ultimately, defrocking him — once the first credible accusation of abuse against a minor, as opposed to a priest or seminarian, came to light.
Before that, the report says, Francis “was never informed by anyone that McCarrick had sexually abused or assaulted any person, irrespective of age.”
But the report makes it clear Francis did receive warnings — just not explicit ones — about McCarrick’s abuse of young adults.
On two occasions — in 2013 and again between 2014 and 2016 — then-Archbishop Angelo Becciu told Francis of “old allegations” related to McCarrick. Francis, who was interviewed by the church investigators, recalled hearing from Becciu that it “was ‘something from the distant past’ that had been gossiped about.'”
According to the report, Francis assumed any allegations against McCarrick must have been unfounded, because John Paul II was so “morally strict” that he wouldn’t have otherwise promoted McCarrick to Washington.
Also in 2016, Cardinal Pietro Parolin — the Vatican’s secretary of state — told Francis that McCarrick was “gossiped about” regarding past misconduct with adults, and that the Vatican organization overseeing bishops, under Benedict XVI, had asked McCarrick to lead a more reserved life.
Parolin observed to Francis that McCarrick was nonetheless traveling and meeting people.
“Maybe McCarrick could still do something useful,” Parolin remembered Francis then saying, according to the report.
Kathleen Sprows Cummings, director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame, said Francis’s assumption that his predecessors had dealt with the issue “is the heart of the problem.”
“Catholics have this trust that people in charge did their jobs,” she said. “Nobody did.”
One of Francis’s most trusted lieutenants, Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Canada, had years earlier received explicit warnings about McCarrick, including a letter describing McCarrick as a “sexual predator.” Ouellet was also warned by the Vatican’s then-ambassador to the U.S., Carlo Maria Viganò, that there were numerous accusations against McCarrick. But Viganò, according to the report, did not look more deeply into the accusations when Ouellet asked. And Ouellet seemed not to pursue the matter further, and deemed that it was not worth bringing to Francis, because it was “incomplete.”
In an interview with the church investigators, Ouellet said there was a vast difference between misconduct involving another an adult — of which McCarrick was accused at the time — and abuse of a child. He did not raise the point that McCarrick, when asking younger priests and seminarians to share his bed, was doing so as a bishop who held sway over their careers.
“Anything involving a minor would be very grave,” Ouellet told the investigators. “But we did not have anything like that that I remember at all. If I thought that he had a past that could relate to a minor, of course I would say it [to the Pope]. It would make the level of importance completely different.”
Ouellet did not respond Wednesday to an email seeking comment.
Francesco Zanardi, an Italian abuse survivor and president of the Abuse Network, said that “sexual abuse and abuse of power coexist.”
“It’s a matter of hierarchy and subservience,” Zanardi said.
Francis, according to most Vatican watchers, has come to appreciate the gravity of abuse by established clerics against younger adults, and last year specifically mentioned adults when issuing a new church decree requiring priests and nuns to report abuse to their superiors.
But some say the church under Francis has struggled on other fronts, even after the pope last year convened bishops from around the world to discuss the abuse crisis and pledged greater transparency.
Massimo Faggioli, a professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University, noted that bishops are evaluated and considered for promotions behind closed doors. And when they are removed from their jobs under the suspicion of sexual abuse, the Vatican notes the transaction but does not provide a rationale.
McCarrick’s case was high-profile and received special treatment, Faggioli said. “But how many bishops in these last 7-1/2 years have been quietly dismissed by the Vatican?”